“What does the world hate more / than women / in public?” – on Elaine Kahn’s new collection

coverElaine Kahn‘s recent release in the City Lights Spotlight Series, profiling innovative contemporary poetry, is Women in Public. The book explores the constructs and complications of identity through the consumption of commodity and of the body, and the war simultaneously being fought between the interior and the complexities of relationships with other bodies. Recently given a beautifully in-depth review by Alexandra Wuest on Entropy, Kahn is compared to the likes of artist Hannah Wilke and Mary Ruefle, whose collection Madness, Rack, and Honey “describes [Paul Valéry’s] idea that the opening line of a poem ‘is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.’” Wuest continues,

With Women in Public, Kahn has created an entire forest, one in which a bounty of language simultaneously blooms and withers, begins and ends, and begins again. Kahn packs her poems with a density as complex as the systems regulating the human body itself.

Blooming and withering – and tending to human chores in and outside of the domestic sphere (picking up your car from the impound lot, doing laundry, … ), Kahn collects the hard-to-reach spaces of feminine identity and drops them onto the page into little puddles that leak and stain beyond the systems that are ultimately in place to define them. Women in Public asks what happens when Women step out of the private and essentially enter the hostility of the public space. Back to Wuest:

An equally compelling question (although this one comes without an immediate answer): “What does the world hate more / than women / in public?” This is the question Elaine Kahn posits in the titular poem of her collection and the resounding heartbeat that pulsates beneath each page of the book. It’s a fair question. A woman wears shorts in ninety-degree weather and is suddenly reduced to an exhibitionist who is “asking for it.” A female artist gets naked for art and is accused of being a narcissist trying to seduce a male audience. A woman writes about her feelings and is condemned for “over sharing.” One of the most controversial actions a woman can undertake is to merely exist in public.

In the poem “You Don’t Know How to Make Love,” Kahn writes:

It stuns my stupid head
still ringing with the deluge
of having a body

This is exactly what it feels like to be six years old and realize you are expected to be a groupie, when all you ever wanted was to be in the band itself. The burden of the body–and all the confusing, contradictory, infuriating expectations that come attached to gendered perceptions of being. It all comes back to beginnings and endings. Once a body is entered into the public sphere–say the streets of downtown L.A. or wherever it was Blink-182 is gallivanting through in their super-nude music video–where does that body’s flesh end and the perception of flesh begin? And why does the world get so upset when female bodies finally leave the private sphere and reveal themselves to the public?

Though that question may be left unanswered (at no fault of Wuest or Kahn) – Women in Public serves rather as an apt presentation of women in private. These poems seem to exist in rooms filled with knick-knacks, memories, trash, food, and familiar voices. The quiet and the volatile coexist behind the door “left slightly ajar” and the image Kahn delivers exceeds and destroys these socially constructed expectations. Wuest also had to say on Kahn’s full-length collection,

Hannah Wilke So Help Me Hannah Series  From the performance at P.S.1, New York       1978 36 silver gelatin prints Signed and dated on the verso 14 x 11 inches each AP I                              Copyright © Donald Goddard Courtesy  SolwayJones, Los Angeles and Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive Los Angeles
Hannah Wilke
So Help Me Hannah Series
From the performance at P.S.1, New York
1978

Identity is not static or cemented in permanence, but a process of diverging tides, performances, and choices, changing with the day, week, month, season, year, or even just the weather. The body–such a sorry placeholder for identity–reflects only an iota of the myriad contradictions that complete human experiences. And fortunately for us, Kahn knows contradiction well–she writes of garbage with beauty, sexuality with humor, frogs with “presidential teeth.”

There’s something remarkably organic about Kahn’s treatment of her poetic subjects. An easy humor permeates Kahn’s poems, leavening even the heaviest of topics with a wry wink. It’s no wonder Kahn writes about Wilke, an artist who clearly had some sense of humor, a woman who sculpted vaginas out of chewing gum–the ultimate disposable material, something chewed up, and spat on the ground–a not-so-subtle symbol for the treatment of women in the public sphere.

Women in Public is available in the Poetry Room at City Lights Bookstore or at CityLights.com. Ask for it at your local independent bookshop. It is no. 13 in the City Lights Spotlight Series, which will continue with a new collection by Julien Poirier in Spring 2016. Other poets in the series include John Coletti, Eric Baus, Alli Warren, and Lisa Jarnot.

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